Politically Thinking: Snelling-Scott primary offers intrigue

The five-way race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination will be the most interesting contest in Vermont’s Aug. 24 primary election. Nearly as interesting will be the race between Phil Scott and Mark Snelling for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.

With Brian Dubie seeking the governorship this year, a new lieutenant governor will be elected for the first time in eight years. Nearly all the individuals who have served as lieutenant governor in the last 30 years have later been elected to higher office, or at least have run for higher office. Democratic lieutenant governors Madeleine Kunin, Howard Dean and Doug Racine, as well as Republican lieutenant governors Peter Smith and Brian Dubie, have all either served as governor or run for governor. In fact, Mark Snelling’s mother, Barbara, is the only Vermont lieutenant governor since 1978 who has not run for governor at least once.

As is the case with the five Democratic candidates for governor, there are few issue differences between Mark Snelling and Phil Scott. Both Republicans want to see Vermont Yankee’s license extended. Both candidates believe that Vermont’s levels of state spending and taxation are an obstacle to private sector job creation in the state. Unlike Brian Dubie, both Scott and Snelling have moderate views on social issues.

Although Snelling and Scott differ little on the issues, the two men come from very different personal and political backgrounds. Snelling, who is a businessman in Shelburne and a Starksboro resident, grew up in a political family, although he has never been elected to office himself. His father served as governor for four terms and part of a fifth, his mother served two terms as lieutenant governor, and his sister, Diane, is a long-time state senator from Chittenden County.

If there is a political dynasty in the Vermont Republican party, the Snellings are it. Snelling’s core supporters in the primary include many of the luminaries of the Vermont Republican party from a generation ago, including Lola Aiken (widow of Sen. George Aiken), Dick Mallary (former U.S. House member), Bob Gannett (former state senator), and Stephan Morse (former Vermont House Speaker).

Phil Scott, a native Vermonter and a graduate of UVM, has represented Washington County in the Vermont Senate since 2000. The owner of a heavy construction company in Middlesex, Scott describes himself, among other things, as a “fisherman and snowmobiler, mechanic and laborer, truck driver and stock car driver.” Scott is the chair of the Senate Institutions Committee, one of only two Republican committee chairs in the overwhelmingly Democratic Senate.

Scott is well-known in Montpelier for reaching across party lines. He might very well be the Republican legislator who is most liked by his Democratic colleagues. Scott’s being elected to the Senate five times from strongly Democratic Washington County illustrates his cross-party political appeal.

Mark Snelling has been endorsed by nearly all the “great and the good” in the Vermont Republican party from the era before Jim Douglas was elected governor. In some ways, Snelling’s campaign seems a throwback to the time when the Republicans were the majority party in Vermont and the GOP represented the only path to political advancement in the state. Phil Scott’s career demonstrates how a Republican with both moderate and populist appeal can be successful in Vermont. The primary contest between the two men for the nomination for lieutenant governor will show whether endorsements from well-known Republicans and a famous name will outweigh popular support and a track record of electoral success.

Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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